My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Armenian Christianity in Eastern Turkey - a pilgrimage and a history

Church of the Holy Cross Aktamar 
By now my readers will be used to the idea that pretty much everything about the history of the areas we were visiting in this beautiful region of Eastern Turkey has been extremely complicated. It was little wonder that I sometimes found it hard to get my head around all the dates and names and battles and so on that our guide was telling us about in the coach as we traveled on between our many and varied stopping points.

Armenian church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani

But to gain the most out of this pilgrimage it really was important to understand some of the background history to the area and especially its churches and monasteries,
and as far as the history of the Armenian Church is concerned, I have identified the following which I see as the main facts relevant to this pilgrimage:

1. It was two of the disciples of Jesus Christ, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who first brought Christianity to the ancient Kingdom of Armenia, in about the middle of the first century AD. They helped spread the religion in the Kingdom and it is said that they may have been martyred in Armenia.

Ani church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents
2. St Gregory the Illuminator (otherwise called St Gregory the Enlightener, and so called because he enlightened the nation with the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was responsible for the Armenians embracing Christianity. He was brought up in Caesarea in Cappadochia as a Christian and was imprisoned and tortured for many years in a deep dungeon by the pagan Tiridates. The story goes that at that time King Tiridates III succumbed to a dreadful affliction brought on after the King had a group of Christian nuns murdered in a fit of spite because his amorous advances were rejected by one of them. So Gregory was brought up from his dungeon, where in spite of the awful treatments inflicted upon him he had survived, and sure enough did indeed cure the king, converting him to Christianity from Paganism at the same time. This was good news for Armenian Christianity as in gratitude the King declared the official religion of Armenia to be Christianity.
This made Armenia the first country to have a national Christian Church. 
Within just a few centuries, with royal support, Christianity had spread rapidly throughout the country and even permeated the Armenian culture.
The frescoes in the eastern part of the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani are devoted to the life of St Gregory the Illuminator.

3. There were three other very significant events in early Armenian church history:

a. In the mid fifth century the Persians wanted the Armenians to denounce their faith and follow Zoroastrianism. The Armenians fought for their right to remain Christian at the Battle of Avarayr where St Vartan and over 1000 noblemen were defeated, but after 30 years of persecution the new Persian Shah acknowledged the right from then on for the Armenians to pursue their Christian faith without hindrance.

b. Until much the same time there was no written Armenian language and Greek or Syriac was used in worship. In 404 AD the monk Mesrob, later to become St Mesrob, invented an Armenian alphabet enabling him to translate the Bible so that the written word was available for all.

c. The third event of significance is somewhat more complicated and theological and concerns the way that followers of Jesus understood his nature as both perfect God and perfect man; basically whether Christians emphasized the diversity or the unity of the incarnate God – “the Word become flesh.” Those who believed in the unity of the incarnate God were accused of denying the humanity of Christ while the diversity group were said to be effectively splitting Christ into two persons. The argument is a difficult theological one, and the matter was put up for discussion and decision by the fourth Ecumenical council held at Chalcedon near Constantinople in 451 AD. Far from bringing the two sides in the debate together, in fact the council were accused of leaning too far towards the diversity idea and this split the churches into those that accepted Chalcedon (The Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church) and the non Chalcedonian churches including the Armenian, Syrian and Coptic Oriental Orthodox churches.

For some time from 992 Ani was the main See or center of the Catholicus or leader of the Armenian Church, and had many of the finest examples of Armenian Church architecture, sadly mostly in ruins as we had seen. Ani was the capital of the medieval Armenian Kingdom (Bagratuni) from 961 – 1045 and by the beginning of the 11th century it had a population of well over 100,000 (some say even up to 200,000). It was renowned not only for its churches but also for its elaborately fortified walls and was known as “the city of forty gates” as well as the “city of a thousand and one churches.”

Church of the Holy Cross Island of Aktamar
It was important for us to understand as pilgrims the persecutions and oppressions suffered by the Armenian Church through the ages, 
right up to the devastating genocide in 1915 already mentioned and subsequent limitations on worship in Soviet Armenia.
It says a great deal for the strength of their faith that the church has survived as it has, and at the same time it was sobering to see so many beautiful Armenian churches in different states of ruin or abandonment. 

So where does the Armenian church stand today? I quote below from an article by Michael B Papazian on The Armenian Church from which some of the above information was also obtained:

“The mission of the Armenian Church today is the re-evangelization of Armenia following its emancipation from coercive atheism as well as the renewal of religious life in a Diaspora that is increasingly threatened by materialistic and secular influences (I so agree!) The mission today to integrate all aspects of Armenian life with the Gospel remains fundamentally the same as that of St. Gregory the Illuminator at the Armenian Church’s beginning.”

I also used another excellent source, from the Armenian Culture website, on the “History of the Armenian Church”  by James R. Russell, Columbia University. 1981 and it seems appropriate to close with passages taken from the final paragraphs of that article:

"Religious intolerance, violence, and the fanatical propagation of one's own ideas without regard for the convictions and dignity of others, are the denial of civilization.
The Armenians became more than a culture with Vartan, separating themselves decisively from Iran -- they became a civilization. No king led them into battle, nor did any hope of victory or gain spur them; they fought with simple bravery and fine reluctance, only for the right to be themselves. Such a nation is so enlightened, cupped in the very hand of God, that it can never really be defeated. Armenia celebrates in Vartan the victory, not of arms, but of an idea. That idea is the freedom of the spirit, the basis of liberty, of creativity, of thought and of life.”

Other sites that may be of interest: in USA in Australia

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